Environmental Information Resources on the Internet

by William B. Feidt and Catherine Roos

With the astounding growth of the Internet over just the last few years has come a concomitant increase in the number of environmental information resources available on the Net. These resources come in a bewildering array: mailing lists, Usenet newsgroups, gopher servers and World Wide Web (WWW) servers, among others.

While this article will focus on Usenet newsgroups and some WWW resources, a broader overview of environmental information sources is contained in A Guide to Environmental Resources on the Internet, by Carol Briggs-Erickson and Toni Murphy. Last updated in October 1994, the guide is available via the following URL:
gopher://una.hh.lib.umich.edu/00/inetdirsstacks/environment%3amurphybriggs

Usenet

Usenet is an excellent place to stay abreast of recent happenings and topical discussions. Usenet may be thought of as the world's most extensive bulletin board system, with over 10,000 active, subject-oriented conferences, known as newsgroups. Each newsgroup focuses on a single broad topic.

Subscribers to a group "post" articles (messages) which can then be commented on ("followed up") by other subscribers. An original message, along with all of its follow-ups, is called a thread. Anyone may read the accumulated threads in a newsgroup. Due to the sheer volume of Usenet news postings, older messages are normally deleted. Although message life varies from group to group, it is typically about two weeks.

To read newsgroups, users need access to a news server, which is often available through Internet Service Providers (ISP). The server maintains a database of Usenet articles and "serves up" groups, threads and articles as they are requested. Every news server maintains its own database of Usenet articles, generally accessible only by the clientele of the particular ISP. Not all ISPs carry all the newsgroups; in fact, some are quite selective. It is not unusual for an ISP to decline to carry any of the massive "alternative" (alt.*) hierarchy.

In addition to a news server, users need a newsreader to access Usenet. The reader interacts with the server by translating user requests into a form that can be understood by the server. It also formats for screen display the information returned by the server. Internet service provided by a shell account generally uses a UNIX-based reader, such as "rn," "nn," "trn" or "tin." When service is provided through a direct network connection, a SLIP account or TIA software, a desktop reader, such as NewsExpress, Trumpet Newsreader or WinVN, can be used.

Many newsgroups deal with environmental issues to varying extents. Some groups most directly related to the environment are listed below. The number of postings (messages) in each group on the server the authors used in late December 1994 is given in parentheses.

Several foreign language newsgroups, such as the following, are also available on the Net: Environmental discussions also take place in more general groups, but finding relevant threads among the thousands of conferences is a challenging undertaking. A few likely candidates for investigation are alt.activism; alt.disasters.misc; and misc.activism.progressive.

To provide a flavor for the kinds of discussions that take place, the following list shows a few of the current threads in the group sci.environment. Numbers following the asterisks indicate the number of articles (original posting plus follow-ups) in the thread. Where no asterisk exists, only an original article has been posted.

*15	We get no oxygen from trees!
	Nuclear Waste Disposal: A Reality
	Any urban environ. quality indexes?
*2	ACGIH
*3	CFC substitutes
	McDonalds on trial
	Good news about Kuwait
*2	plaster of paris or gypsum reuse/recycling
	Radioactive smoke
	Question About Grazing On Public Lands
*5	HELP ozone in lower vs. upper atmosphere
	Env vs Solar or Nuclear energy was Nuclear Waste Disposal
*4	Radioactive smoke
	News for NIRS
*7	Nuclear Waste Disposal: A Reality in Canada
*2	RACHEL:  Chemical Safety, Pt. 1
*8	Nuclear/Solar comparison (was Nuclear Waste Disposal)
	Internet connections on the Environment
*2	GlobalWarming=CO2
	UN Climate Change Bulletin #5
	Laboratory Contaminants
	Top Soil Loss (Was: McDonalds on trial)
*3	Nuclear Ship Lawsuit - Factum
*10	Chernobyl Health Effects
*2	Recycling Exclusions and exemptions, HAZMAT
	environmentally sound camping

World Wide Web

The "Web" is comparable to Usenet in that it operates in a client-server architecture. WWW servers are operated by those wishing to provide information to the Net. Information consumers, on the other hand, use client software, known variously as viewers, browsers or readers, which interact with servers to obtain information requested by users.

Among the currently popular WWW viewers are Mosaic and Netscape. The viewers require "TCP/IP to the desktop," which can be achieved through a direct network connection, a SLIP or PPP account, or TIA software with a shell account. WWW information can be accessed through a shell account using a character-based (VT100) viewer known as Lynx, which delivers the textual portion of WWW pages, but the graphical component is always difficult, and sometimes impossible, to configure.

Resource discovery is perhaps the most tenuous aspect of WWW use. There are so many server sites available that it is often difficult to find the ones that deal with a specific category of information. Fortunately, some Web sites have tackled the problem by categorizing and grouping Web information resources. "Yahoo - A Guide to WWW" (URL:http://akebono.stanford.edu:80/yahoo/) provides an excellent entree to environmental information, with 191 sources currently listed in its "Environment and Nature" category. Yahoo also lets its users search WWW-space by keyword.

Among other environmentally oriented indexes are the following:

These and other indexes provide an excellent point of departure for investigations of environmental resources, but they do not include all relevant sites. Further areas worthy of investigation include governmental agencies at all levels; non-profit and other private organizations; and universities.

For those interested in federal law and policy regarding the environment, the League of Conservation Voters maintains a service detailing information about how Congressional representatives vote on key environmental legislation, a summary rating of each representative's environmental voting record and an explanation of each of the issues considered. The site can be found at URL: http//www.econet.apc.org/lcv/scorecard.html.

New Web resources come online daily, further complicating navigation of the network. But users who remain in touch with newsgroups often stay on top of the new products and services. Two groups which do a good job of announcing many of the new and interesting sites on the Net are comp.internet.net-happenings and comp.infosystems.announce.

Conclusion

The Internet contains a wealth of environmentally related information, much of it of considerable significance. The future information specialist will not be able to perform effectively without access to this resource. Although problems in gaining access to the Net and its resources abound and are likely to continue for some time, it is a wellspring that cannot be ignored.


William B. Feidt (wfeidt@cpcug.org) is an information technology specialist for the National Agricultural Library. He has taught introductory courses on Usenet and Gopher for the Capital PC User Group. Catherine Roos is a librarian at the National Library of Medicine and chair of the DC Online Users Group.